Some of you might know the old hymn “I Surrender All.” “All to Jesus I surrender, All to Him I freely give. I will ever love and trust Him, In his presence daily live. I surrender all. I surrender all. All to thee, my blessed Savior, I surrender all.”
What you might not know is the story behind the hymn. J. W. Van DeVenter was once a schoolmaster and promising artist. Indeed, he was an artist by trade and training. Painting was something of his passion. Teaching school was simply a means of supporting that passion. The position he had in the academy allowed him to make a living while he continued to study drawing and painting.
After attending a series of evangelistic meetings that were held in his church some of his friends witnessed his gifts in counseling and working with people. They then urged him to become an evangelist himself.
For five years Van DeVenter wavered between his love for art and what seemed to be God’s calling to the ministry. At last though, he decided to leave behind what had been his life long love up to that point. He gave up his brushes and his paints and he entered the ministry full time.
Years later, after reflecting on that time of his life, he wrote this hymn. And in the second stanza he would say, “All to Jesus I surrender, Humbly at his feet I bow. Worldly pleasures all forsaken, Take me Jesus, take me now.”
The song and Van DeVenter’s life characterize the theme of our passage this morning. Our text for today expresses that there can be nothing in our lives that comes before Christ. If we really want to be a follower of Christ—if we want to be one who is a disciple of Jesus, then the anthem of our life must be “All to Jesus I surrender.”
One of the things I love about this passage is that it is completely in your face. As we read it you no doubt saw that there are three different men who are looking to follow Jesus. And Jesus’ doesn’t beat around the bush. No. He sticks it to each one of them. In essence, he says, “Thank you for applying, but you got to understand: Following me isn’t without its consequences.”
And that’s what every one of us must understand. If you are going to be a Christ follower, you have to understand that He must be supreme. He must take precedence over everything else in this world. Indeed, in this passage, Jesus says that He must rank far above any earthly comfort, commitment, or care.
I. Above life’s comforts
Look at what it says in verses 57-58. Someone steps out of the crowd and boldly says, “Hey Jesus. I will follow you wherever you go!” Now, you have to admire the aspiration of this guy. He’s got some hutzpah. He’s got some fire in the bones and really wants to serve Christ.
But look what Jesus says in the next verse. Jesus responds by saying, “Foxes have holes, birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” In other words, are you willing to give up what I’ve given up?
You remember that life used to be a little more glamorous for Jesus. Jesus used to dwell in heaven. He used to have a pretty sweet set up. There he was in glory with all the accompanying perks. But now, ever since his humiliation and incarnation, his life is been one of poverty and suffering—he didn’t even have a pillow upon which to rest his head! He had forsaken his home and all the other comforts of life, just so he could devote himself to his mission.
Jesus is saying, “Following me is not a bed of roses by any means. If you want a life of luxury and ease, then you better think again.”
You need to realize this too: If you chose to follow Jesus, then it very well mean that you lose a great many of the comforts in life.
To be sure, Jesus isn’t calling us to take a vow of asceticism. He’s not saying that if you love Jesus you have to liquidate your assets, get rid of your bed, and begin sleeping on a mat. No. He’s describing the extremities that you might face if you chose to follow him.
Jesus is saying that he was never at home in this world. And, if you are going to follow him, then you need to be ready to renounce your house and home too! You need to be able to be deprived of many of the nice things in life.
There are a number of ways this could pan out. Following Jesus may mean taking a job that pays less than what you have right now. Maybe you are making a comfortable living at your present job. But maybe you’ve been neglecting your family. You haven’t been following Christ’s call to be a husband and father like you should. Maybe you’ll need to step down from that position so that you can spend more time with your family. “But if I take a pay cut, then we won’t be able to make the mortgage payment.” Yeah! Maybe you’ll have to downsize and lose the comforts of a big house so that you can have a real home wherein Christ lives!
You got to understand that Christ doesn’t call you to be comfortable. He calls you to follow him. It may mean following a third world country so that you can do ministry there. Or it may mean that you start a booming company right here in your hometown, but then having to walk away from it because you have to go into hiding because of persecution breaking out.
And if that is not a commitment you can make, then Jesus says, “Don’t bother coming after me.” Jesus has to be the highest priority in your life and money or nice fluffy pillows have to take a far second place.
Again, I’m not saying that you have to take a vow of poverty. You very well may be called to have a very lucrative career. The question you must ask yourself is how dedicated are you to the comforts associated with this world? Can you live without them? Would you be able to give up sleeping in your Posturepidic bed if it meant following Jesus? If it came down to it, would you be willing to pull way back on your monthly expenses and live on a shoestring budget?
Jesus says, “if you are going to follow me, then you must be willing to mimic me.” He left the sweets of his heavenly abode so that he might fulfill his calling here on earth. And that may mean that you too will have to endure poverty and suffering yourself.
But you’ll notice that, if you are going to be a Christ follower, then you not only have to love Christ above life’s comforts, you have to love him above life’s commitments too.
II. Above life’s commitments [59-61]
In the next couple of verses we see how Jesus calls two other guys, and both of them basically say, “Ok, I’ll do it. Just give me a little while.” The first guy says that his father just died and he has to go and bury him. The other guy says, “Hey, just let me go home and say good-bye to my family.”
Now, don’t take this the wrong way. I don’t think that Jesus is saying that you can’t fulfill any obligations you have to your parents or that you should just walk away from them without giving them any kind of notice. Jesus knows that one of the 10 commandments is honor your father and mother. He knows that it is your duty to show proper respect to your household.
What I think is going on here is that Jesus is using hyperbole. A hyperbole is an exaggeration. He’s playing up the whole scenario so that people will recognize how extreme his calling really is. Jesus wants us to understand that every commitment in our life must play second fiddle to him and his calling in our life.
This is something that comes out a bit more clearly with the guy who has the burial preparations to make. Back in those days the burial process wasn’t as simple as it is for us in our day. It was a process that could take up to a year’s time. You know, we just put the person in a box and then put them in the ground. It is a rather quick fix. Back then, that’s not how it worked. First you would bury the person. Then a year later you would take the bones of the deceased and put them in an ossuary box for proper preservation.
So most Bible commentators see this guy as saying, “Sure I’ll follow you, but I’m going to do it later.”
Really, the connector between the two guys that Jesus calls is that both use the word “but.” I’ll follow you, but first let me bury my father. “Yeah, I’ll follow you, but first let me say good-bye to my family.”
And that is what a lot of people say when they hear Christ calling them even today. Sure I’ll follow you, just as soon as I make this one last deal. There’s plenty of time to follow Jesus. But right now I want to ____.
Let me tell you the story of Big Eddy. Big Eddy is one of the guys who is involved in the FCA program over in the prison. Before Big Eddy went to the Big House he had a really good job. He own auto shop and he was making well over $100,000 a year. But that wasn’t enough for him. He got greedy and he started dealing drugs. That brought in hundreds of thousands more. But the Lord started speaking to him and he knew that he needed to stop dealing. He knew that he needed to get right with God and become a Christian. But he kept putting it off. Finally he said, “Just one more.” Once this deal goes down, I’m out.
So there he was, ready to make his last deal. He had the stash and he was ready to get a big load of money. It was a big drop. But it turned out to be a bust. From what I hear it was just like you see on TV. A SWAT team came out of nowhere with all their guns pointed right at him. A helicopter swooped in and beamed a light down on him. The whole thing was a set up. It was a big sting operation.
Big Eddy didn’t even try to run. He knew that it was God’s doing. He had failed to listen to the call of Christ. He kept putting it off and making excuses because he was more committed to the money and to the drugs.
Thankfully God gave Big Eddy another chance. Eddy is faithfully serving God in the prison right now. And someday he’s going to be able to get out and continue serving Christ in a church somewhere.
But his life serves as an example of someone who doesn’t see the urgency of making Christ the highest priority in your life. If you are going to follow Christ, you have to do it now and he has to take precedence over the things to which you are committed.
He has to take precedence over your family. He has to take precedence over you career. You young people, he has to take precedence over your relationships. You might really like a certain girl. You might be really committed to her. You might be so committed to her that you are ready to marry her. But if she’s not a Christian, or if she is going to hinder your walk with Christ, then you need to be able to say, “I’m sorry, I can’t do it.”
Of course, there is the opposite extreme too. I’m not sure if it is a problem in this congregation, but one of the biggest things that people need to deal with today is these kinds of relationships. Some couples think, “We are so committed to each other that we are living together.” That’s not what Christ wants though. Jesus says, “if you love her, marry her. Don’t be living in sin like that.” And these couples have to decide if they are going to follow Jesus.
Whatever the case may be, Jesus has to take precedence over whatever you are committed to in this world. And you can’t say, “Yeah, I’ll follow you, I’ll just get on it a little later.” No. It has to be now. Christ demands that you heed his call right at this very moment. A commitment later, is no commitment at all.
But not only does he have to take priority over the comforts and commitments in your life, but he has to take priority over all of life’s cares.
III. Above life’s cares
Jesus sums it all up in verse 62 when he says, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
Now this might be a reference to the calling of Elisha back in the book of Kings. Some of you may know the story of how Elijah came by Elisha one day as he was plowing the field with his oxen and threw his mantle around him. It was Elijah’s way of saying, “God wants you to take up my ministry someday.” You may remember that Elisha went back to his parents and said farewell before going out with Elijah.
Some say that Jesus isn’t letting this guy have that kind of opportunity because there is something unique about this moment in time. And there may be some truth to that. This is, after all, Jesus’ calling. He’s saying, “Hey, the kingdom of God cannot wait!” Christ is here! It is time to take action and make decisions that have eternal significance. You can’t be dilly dallying around.
There very well may be some legitimacy to that. But there might be another way of looking at this verse. Maybe he is talking about how the life of a Christ follower demands a steadfast spirit. You need to be determined to forsake everything. Nothing should in this world deter you from following Jesus.
That, I think, fits the illustration Jesus uses. If you are plowing a field you can’t take your eye off what is in front of you for very long. If you do, the oxen will start to drift and your rows won’t be plowed straight.
The same thing is true when you are driving a car. If you get caught up looking at a billboard, it’s likely that you’re going to run your car into the next lane or off the road. You naturally drive in the direction you are looking.
Think about it. Here’s a guy plowing a field, and something catches his attention. Its something frivolous, but something he enjoys. Maybe he’s looking at some friends. They are out playing ball in the next field. Or maybe he’s just daydreaming about what he’s going to do that night. All these cares are filling his head.
A little later the man who owns the field comes out to inspect the work. When he gets there sees all kinds of squiggly lines. What’s he going to do? He’s going to be mad! He’s going to say, “Get out of here! You’re not fit for this kind of work!”
Jesus is saying, “You can’t be caught up in all kinds of cares in this world and follow me. You can’t be distracted by the pleasures the world may offer. You can’t be distracted by any old fancy.
There are plenty of distractions. There are little ones, like the internet. The internet is a great thing, but let’s face it: it can be a distraction. Rather than spending time in prayer or doing some personal devotion, you can just start clicking. One youtube video, leads to the next. And there is nothing like pictures of little kittens to distract you from your focus on Christ.
One of my prisoner students just confided in me this week something similar. He said he got rid of his tv. He said that he is amazed now how much time he has to get things done and focus on his walk with Christ. He said, “It is amazing, you know. You finish one show, and they give the teaser for the next one and it just sucks you in. The next thing you know you’ve burned 3-4 hours.”
There is nothing wrong with a tv, but he recognized that his television had become a distraction to his walk with Christ. So he just decided to cut the connection altogether.
Maybe you need to do the same. Maybe there is something in your life that has become a distraction. There is an idol that seems to be sucking too much of your attention and taking you away from serious time in the word or in prayer. Maybe it is something much more devious than a TV. Maybe it is something outright sinful, like pornography. Whatever the case may be, Jesus says that you must not let these things pull you away from the course you have set.
In 1812 Napoleon’s French army invaded Russia. During that campaign they overtook a small Russian village. All the inhabitants had fled except one peasant. He was supposed to be a woodsman from the axe that hung from his belt. The officer in command of the French troops ordered the man to be shot. The soldiers raised their muskets and prepared to fire. But the peasant stood coolly, looking down the barrels of the guns. He never once flinched.
The officer in charge was so struck with the man’s courage that he commanded the firing party to lower their muskets and spare the prisoner’s life. “But,” said the officer, “we will put a mark upon him.” They made a branding iron red hot and placed it upon the man’s hand. When they removed he could see that the mark took the form of the letter “N.”
The peasant man asked, “What is this?” The officer responded, “That is the letter ‘N’ for Napoleon. You belong to him now. The woodsman then turned, placed the branded hand upon a nearby table, took his axe from his belt, and with one stroke severed the hand from his arm. “There now!” he cried. “There is not one bit of me that does not belong to the Czar.”
That man was truly loyal. He would rather lose the comfort of his own hand than be branded a traitor. Not even his commitment to his own life (and perhaps even his family) would break his commitment to his king.
The same level of commitment is demanded of anyone who would chose to follow Christ. May you too be willing to set Christ as supreme
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Matt is blessed to be a husband, father, and pastor in Ashland, Ohio.